To hold or not to hold … THAT is the question.
For many keepers, one of the highlights of the hobby is getting some hands-on interaction with their animals. Many new keepers feel that holding a tarantula for the first time is a major accomplishment and a benchmark in the hobby. Tell folks that you keep tarantulas as pets, and the first question usually asked is, “do you hold them?” For some folks, they don’t truly feel like they can graduate from the “newbie” stage of T keeping until they can handle one with ease.
Seasoned keepers often enjoy handling their calmer animals (and sometimes, the not so calm ones) as a way to feel more bonded to these amazing creatures and to show others that they are not as scary as they may seem. Some even use handling for utilitarian purposes like rehousings and maintenance, as they feel that it’s easier than prodding and cupping the creatures. For these folks, years of experience has taught them to read subtle behavioral signs and to recognize when a tarantula might be tolerant of handling.
However, bring up the topic of handling on the message boards, and you are likely to wander into a heated, age-old debate between those who endorse handling and those who consider it an unsafe, unnecessary practice. Like politics and religion, handling discussions can often become angry arguments between two sides stubbornly making a gray-area issue into a black and white one.
When I first got into the hobby, it was a major goal of mine to be able to handle a tarantula without fear. In fact, I purchased my first T, a female G. porteri, in part to get me over my arachnophobia. And after years of studying this creature, my first attempt at handling her almost went horribly awry. After seeing this T sit in one spot for years and never flick a hair or make an attempt to bite, I decided the time was right to finally hold her. After putting her enclosure on the floor, I opened it up and laid my hand inside. Using a paintbrush, I prepared to use it to prod her into my open hand. To my shock, she latched onto the paintbrush, scraping her fangs against it as she attacked. In retrospect, I believe that her actions were a feeding response, and NOT a malicious or aggressive gesture. However, the point remains that, had the brush been my hand, I would have been bit.
As I learned more over the years and read others’ experiences, I quickly realized there really wasn’t a point in trying to handle my animals. I know my first reaction when I get hurt is to jerk back, so if I were to get bit, I’d likely injure the animal by throwing it through the air. Hairs are also NOT fun, so I wouldn’t want a handful of those either. The benefit for me would be that I could brag that I held a tarantula. The benefit for the tarantula would be…well…nothing. Besides possibly causing stress to the spider (they are not affection seeking animals like dogs or cats), I’d be risking it injuring itself from a fall or making a possible escape.
But again, this is just my opinion on the matter, and other keepers would disagree.
I know some folks handle, and I understand the draw of it. I also realize that for some, it makes them feel closer to their pet. It’s just not for me. I would rather show my affection and love for them by not putting them in unnecessarily dangerous situations. Still, I recognize that many keepers handle often and without incident, so handling is not necessarily wrong, and the issue is not a black and white one.
I’ve also heard many stories of folks who have held tarantulas and the experience has helped them to see these creatures less as scary monsters and more as the beautiful and amazing animals they are. Some are even brought into the hobby after these up-close and personal experiences. You can’t deny that’s a great thing.
I do think that keepers need to be informed and use discretion before making the decision to handle, and that experience is needed before this is attempted. So, if you are a new keeper thinking about handling (or feeling less than worthy of being in this hobby because you have not yet handled) here are some points to consider.
NOTE: This essay is not intended necessarily to dissuade folks from handling, and I am not trying to change the views of any keeper who handles. I am just offering some points to consider before taking this step.
You do not NEED to hold your Ts.
If you’re worried that by not holding your tarantulas you’ll be looked down on as a keeper, think again. Many keepers with years of experience have a hands-off policy with their pets. If you look up the topic of “handling” on the message boards, you will find many keepers who admit to handling at first, but who discontinued the practice as they got more experience in the hobby. Don’t feel like you HAVE to hold your animals to have credibility in the hobby.
When friends ask whether you handle, feel confident in telling them that you treat your pets in much the same way as one would treat a fish…you look, but you don’t touch. You can also explain that the decision not to handle does not mean that you are afraid of tarantulas or that they are dangerous. You might just mention the stress it can cause the animal or the need to avoid potential injury if the T were to bolt or fall.
They do not get “tame”, but only tolerate handling.
Although some will debate this, tarantulas are really not recognized for being “intelligent” creatures. I have seen evidence in my own collection that some can be conditioned to respond a certain way to stimuli (I have a few that will now come out of their burrows to eat when I open the enclosure), but saying that they learn would be arguable. It seems that some tarantulas have better temperaments than others, and some will become more tolerant of handling after repeated interactions.
However, it should be noted that if you hold the animal without incident, all that means is that on that particular day, in that particular moment, the T was calm enough to tolerate being handled. Instinct tells them that if something big is reaching for them, it’s likely a predator or danger. They will then bite or hair flick to inflict pain and, hopefully, escape. That’s the natural defense response they’ve developed over millions of years. It doesn’t take much, whether it be a breeze or an imperceptible vibration, to kick a calm animal back into instinctual survival mode.
Have you ever accidentally breathed on one? Their reaction is usually immediate and panicked. Keep this in mind if you decide to hold your pet; one minute it may be sitting calmly in your hands, the next it may bolt or bite. Which leads to…
Tarantulas are not domesticated animals and can be very unpredictable.
Can Ts become conditioned to “tolerate” handling? I believe that probably can. Do they “like” the handling? I doubt it. Are they still stressed? Some might tolerate it more than others, but it only takes a slight breeze to set them off, so I would say any perceived “calmness” can be lost in a second. And here’s where we get to predictability.
They are not domesticated animals; they are essentially wild animals (and not ones recognized for higher-order thinking). This makes them VERY unpredictable. The boards are rife with stories of once docile Ts molting into nasty little monsters (and sometimes molting back to docile again). Their temperaments are NOT always predictable, and many will change as they age. That means that the cuddly little G. pulchripes that you handled at 3″ could be a nippy, hair-flicking demon at 4″. Others talk about Ts that tolerate handling one day, but freak out the next. Keep this in mind before sticking you hand in front of your previously “tame” animal.
Old World tarantulas have more potent venom and use their fangs as defense.
Personally, I see no reason whatsoever to ever try to hold an Old World tarantula. Most are quick, defensive, and pack a wallop of a bite. I’ve seen several videos on Youtube of keepers handling species like OBTs and Pokies in either an attempt to disprove temperament myths or, in some cases, to simply show how “brave” (reckless!) they are. It worries me when I see these that someone might see these videos and think that handling a P. murinus is a common and safe practice. No way.
If you are considering holding an Old World species, take a few moments to read through some of the bite reports on Arachnoboards. Although it’s true that there have been no known cases of a human dying from a tarantula bite, some of the symptoms you may get from a bite are just horrifying. Extreme pain, vomiting, cramping, dizziness, and heart palpitations are just a few of the symptoms. Even worse? Some report symptoms long after the bite. Old World species don’t have hairs as a defense, so if they are startled or threatened, they WILL bite. A mishap from one of these species could end in an emergency room visit.
A bite doesn’t have to be highly venomous to be painful…and getting haired sucks.
Many keepers get hung up on venom potency to the point where they seem to forget that even a bite from a species with weaker venom is going to hurt. A 6″ New World tarantula can still pack a very painful bite, even if the venom isn’t enough to put you in the hospital. Some of the New World species get quite large, and the larger the T, the larger the fangs. Just the mechanical damage from this alone could be a problem.
And then there is the hair. Many people who haven’t experienced urticating hairs poo-poo them as a weak and negligible defense technique. After all, how bad could some prickly little hairs be? The answer is, VERY bad. Some species have very irritating hair, and people’s reactions to them can prove to be more than just a minor annoyance. The effects can also leave you feeling very uncomfortable for several days, which can be no fun. Catch hair in the eyes or breathe some in, and you will likely be headed to the ER for help.
Also, even though you may not have a bad reaction to a hairing the first time it happens, many keepers complain of increased sensitivity the more times they are exposed. This means that you never get used to the hairs, but instead your body becomes more reactive them. Some keepers report having to get rid of certain species because they find the hairs too irritating to deal with. Just something to consider…
Handling is not necessary for a transfer or maintenance.
Some folks find that it is easier and safer to use their hands to move tarantulas during rehousings. Obviously, if they have the experience and it works for them, who am I to judge. However, I’ve have done dozens of transfers, and I’ve never had a situation where I felt that I needed to handle the animal. In fact, I try to keep my hands and fingers away from them as I work. I am calm and deliberate when transferring, and my goal is always to move the animal with minimal stress and as little risk to me and the T as possible. In my opinion, handling the T could add stress for the animal and put it in harm’s way should it bite or flee up my arm. The key is NOT to rush it and to back off and try again later if the animal starts to show signs of stress or agitation.
One bite is all it can take to end up with you and/or your tarantula injured. You have to ask yourself, if one of your pets decides that it is not in the mood, are you really going to be able to keep from flinching and flicking it into the air? Is it worth the risk? It’s a question that you have to ask yourself…
As with all things tarantulas, the key is being informed and prepared.
Again, many keepers extol the benefits of handling tarantulas, so if you still decide that handling is for you, you are certainly NOT doing something wrong. However, you do want to keep in mind some of the points above so that you are prepared and are able to keep you and the animal safe. Google “tarantula handling” and read up on techniques and precautions and watch some of the Youtube videos that show proper handling. Be ready to study your pet before hand to make she displays the temperament that would make her a good candidate for handling.
Full disclosure: I HAVE held my Euathlus sp. red a handful of times, but not for fun. That little booger tends to climb right out of her enclosure every time I open it, and I usually use my hand to just gently put her back in. I have not taken her out for the purpose of handling, though.